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LOCAL Interview :: International Relations : Media

CIMC interview with Sousan Hammad and Benjamin Doherty

Interview about the Palestine Film Festival with Chicago PFF Director Benjamin Doherty and Houston festival organizer Sousan Hammad.
The Chicago Palestine Film Festival began in 2001 as a student project. The festival was founded by Danya Qato, a woman who now lives in Boston. It exists exist today because of the huge contributions from Danya and the other "alumni" commitee members: Widad Al Bassam, Rena Barakat, Christopher Khoury, Stacy Goldate, Jenny Gheith, Farris Wahbeh, Dwan Kaoukji, Mona Aburmishan, and others. The seventh annual incarnation of it begins this evening at the Gene Siskel FIlm Center. CIMC wanted to shed some light on the event so we asked a few questions of Chicago Palestine Film Festival Director Benjamin Doherty and Houston Palestine Film Festival organizer Sousan Hammad. Here's what they had to say.

Chicago Independent Media Center: Why is there a Palestine Film Festival?

Sousan Hammad: The Palestinian cinema has been neglected for quite some time and it is our duty as activists and intellectuals to revive and support the industry. Look at Iranian cinema and the Iranian film festival, today it's recognized as one of the most innovative in the world despite Iranian filmmakers who have had to deal with censorship (post-Iranian revolution) from the Iranian government. The Palestinian film festival hasn't been around very long but we have a small pool of great filmmakers so we definitely have the potential to get on the international cinema circuit.

Benjamin Doherty: The Chicago Palestine Film Festival is a curated selection of films by Palestinian filmmakers and films about Palestine. It's an international festival and nationality is not a selection criterion. The Festival exists to share new views of Palestine with Chicago audiences.

The distinction from a Palestinian film festival is pretty basic. It's not because we don't love Palestinian filmmakers and think they deserve their own festival. Going "all-Palestinian" would be hard, because we'd exclude some wonderful films that wouldn't be seen in Chicago without our festival. Having both the topic and the identity in mind allows us to select films for substantive reasons rather than simply looking at the "ethnicity" or "nationality" box on the submission form. We want to avoid politicizing the films or the festival, and not focusing on a filmmaker's nationality/ethnicity makes this easier…Sometimes a festival or a film or group of films is a response to specific events or zeitgeists… they're timely… but really the fundamental goal is to disseminate honest filmmaking about Palestine.

CIMC: What role do the PFFs play in advancing the Palestinian cause?

SH: I think it's more important to advance Palestinian cinema. The uniqueness of the camera can be used as a tool to reveal the conflict. By letting the camera watch, we can get a reflexive perspective because it is the uniqueness of the camera that represents the truth not the scripts. And through the outlet of the PFF, we are promoting and exposing awareness of Palestinian cinema to a wider audience as a supplement to the preconceived notions or assumptions that have polluted the understanding of Palestine and the wider region.

BD: Individually the films express new perspectives on the issues related to the conflict. As a whole, they serve to humanize Palestinians. I hope the festival also gives Palestinian filmmakers a platform to express whatever sentiment or position they want. If the Palestinian cause is freedom, truth, security, justice, peace and rights, then I think the festival plays a clear though modest role. If the Palestinian cause is a list of constituents, their specific demands, and a diplomatic stroll to a kidney-shaped Palestine(s) with a side of Gaza, we might be harder to place in that movement.

CIMC: In a recent review of a comedy show, you (Sousan Hammad) found the comedians' (maybe "comedians" instead?) command of their art form to be at best, rudimentary, as well as finding their messages to be often very offensive. How important are both the quality of the art and the sanity of the message to the PFF? Are there a great many well-meaning and politically-appealing films that are unwatchable because there is no command over the art form? And if so, how do you deal with them? The opposite question as well. Well made films with bad politics, where do they fit?

SH: Unfortunately, Palestinian filmmakers lack the financial resources and are not in an easy situation to receive funding from the West. There are select few Palestinian filmmakers who have mastered a poetic form of representation and imagery while incorporating political elements and Elia Suleiman is a good example of this. Among other things, Suleiman uses the poetic sphere of movement as a source of meaning and artistic creation, and yet the political context can still be externally represented. Then there are people like Ari Sandel (director of The West Bank Story) who purport comedy to reinforce stereotypes and racism – this is a quintessential example of an exploitative film that caters to the Western audience.

CIMC: Some progressives and radicals view a film's message as being as or more important than artistic merit. The very nature of Palestinian filmmaking, almost exclusively made in the contexts of exile, refugeedom or military occupation, imbues messages into the finished film. Just as the run-up to the 2004 election saw a flood of unwatchable agitprop (and not like Brecht!) against the Bush administration, there are also Palestinian films that take a predominantly didactic and very heavy-handed approach to filmmaking. What boundaries do you draw between art-with-a-message and message-as-bad-art in selecting films for the festival? And other thoughts on the general theme?

BD: We're very interested in screening films that can get an audience. It's not really possible for me to draw a line around art and message. Didactic film isn't necessarily artless, and real entertainment is hard to pull off even without an ulterior motive.

Definitely some filmmakers appear exhausted from the lifelong suppression of their voices and points of view, and their documentary work sometimes rushes through ideology and history. A film can't always do a comprehensive job in the amount of time an audience will sit for it, and this is something that probably becomes apparent during the filmmaking process. The few films that I've seen with this flood of details and facts also leave so many unanswered questions in the people the filmmaker tries to reach. Filmmaking is probably very hard (I don't do it myself), and audiences do not always cooperate with the filmmakers' expectations.

On the subject of propaganda, the most common Palestine film propagandists I see these days are European and American filmmakers. Sometimes these films are sometimes filled with ego and fetishization. They're made with the best stated intentions, but the filmmakers aren't always fair to their subjects. Sometimes it's the manipulation of children who live in camps to say revolutionary slogans to the camera, sometimes it's a disrespect for the subjects' culture or customs, or sometimes the filmmaker just puts his interests and goals above those of the people who have trusted him to film them. I can't help but see these as a product of the "white colonial gaze" to use fancy words. This is my opinion, and all film festival selections are debated and discussed. My opinion is not the only one, and it does not always prevail. and of course, this opinion doesn't apply to all European or American films or any in our festial, all of which have been great selections over the past years.

CIMC:. What difficulties, if any, do you encounter from [other] Palestinians or non-Palestinians from films that Palestinians make specifically for either internal or external viewing? I'm thinking here of films like "Paradise Now" which audiences outside the Palestinian community found to be exceptional but many Palestinians found to be anachronistic to their internal debate which had advanced well beyond most of the debate's portrayal in the film.

SH: If a filmmaker's objective is to be successful in the commercial or mainstream film industry then the preconceived and imagined audience is inevitable and this affects the quality of the film. Originality is out of the question and what we see is the unfolding of the generic and ready-made film. I don't think being Palestinian has anything do with interpreting a film for what it is. A lot of it has to do with the dialectal relationship of filmmaking. Just look at Jean-Luc Godard's films. He has been relatively exclusive in the release of his films and has thus created a masterpiece in almost every single one of his films.

BD: I can't address the notion of internal vs. external viewing. I'm not Palestinian, and I've seen many, many films.

Palestinians certainly expect a great deal from their filmmakers. Certainly I've heard people express disappointment that a film didn't represent the totality of Palestinian experience, which for many people begins with al Nakba. However, I can sympathise with an artist who doesn't always want to start his story with al Nakba. Can't a Palestinian just make a film for goodness sake? Right now, it's very common to find talk in the U.S. mainstream where Palestinians are portrayed as murderous, ugly beasts who want to kill the first Jew, American, Israeli, female relative in sight. In such a toxic, anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim environment, a film that humanizes a middle class Palestinian in exile in Paris or a fantasy story dreamed by a child in a refugee camp may do more effective work on some audiences than the most graphic and gruesome history lessons.

In recent years when we've shown intense and dramatic films about al Nakba and other vitally important moments, it's been difficult for some people to take. There's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to cultivate an engaged and critical Palestinian audience for this art form. It's important to recognize that Palestinian filmmakers like Annemarie Jacir and Rashid Masharawi work very hard to bring their work and other Palestinians' films to Palestinian audiences in and outside Palestine.

There must be more opportunities for Palestinians to see the films made by other Palestinians and about Palestinians. With extremely rare exception, these films are shown in U.S. theaters. I hear rumors that there is one functioning cinema (Al Kasabeh) in the West Bank, but its audience is surely limited by military occupation. Palestinian films are certainly shown in Israel at festivals, special exhibitions, etc., but not in a way that regularly targets Palestinian audiences, yet few cinemas in Amman just have runs of Palestinian films. London, Chicago, Houston, Boston and now Toronto all host annual festivals, but those reach a relatively small number of Palestinians.

I know that some people are frustrated when they hear negative criticism of a Palestinian film for what the film "was not" and "did not," but this is Palestinians engaging their film culture. I don't know why Hany Abu Assad or Elia Suleiman (for example) have a greater duty to represent Palestinian experience (the Nakba) than the the political leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Ultimately, the filmmakers must be free to represent their vision.

CIMC: As a non-Palestinian heavily involved in the PFF, do you see your work as solidarity? And how has your participation in the festival affected your own sensibilities towards all things Palestine?

BD: My work on the festival has been personally gratifying, because I can see the impact of my contribution. I know that the festival makes some folks proud to be Palestinian and happy to have seen a good film, and ultimately that's why I do it.

CIMC: Does the PFF encounter any censorship, or attempts, from sponsors and if so, how does it deal with it?

BD: Years ago, we did have some doors closed on us because we aim to show Palestinian films. However, Chicago is also a very tough market in which to have a film festival. We really need to work harder to engage the cultural and media institutions in this city, but we also have never been ignored. We have a very good relationship with The Gene Siskel Film Center, and CPFF and the Siskel Film Center both are interested in promoting great films, supporting filmmakers, and reaching new audiences. The Festival is incredibly thankful for our relationship with them.

It's no longer permissible to supress Palestinian art. I think this change happened suddenly earlier this decade because of the principled resistance by Palestinian artists, their international supporters, and institutions with a basic sense of artistic integrity. The Palestinian, artist and activist communities here and in other North American cities really deserve the credit for this great accomplishment.

CIMC: What else would you like to say about PFFs or Palestinian filmmaking?

SH: Go to the Chicago and Houston Palestine Film Festivals!




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